Sedimentary Archaeology

Ruth Shahack-Gross

Group Head: Prof. Ruth Shahack-Gross
Department of Maritime Civilizations
Cell: +972-54-760-8637
Office: Multipurpose Bldg., Room 116

The group’s main research interest is in the field of “site formation processes” – studying the processes that shape archaeological sites and greatly affect archaeological interpretation. These processes are studied on two broad levels, human-induced processes and nature-induced processes. Combined, the variety of processes and their relationship with environmental factors are responsible for the diversity of archaeological sites. Thus the mere presence/absence of certain materials in archaeological sites is not enough to understand how they formed, and all cultural and natural processes must be considered to reach more accurate interpretations of the archaeological record.

While the cultural formation processes may include addition of materials into a site as it builds up and deletion of materials as they are taken away by people when a site is abandoned, natural processes may include bio-geo-chemical processes of both addition and deletion of materials through processes of deposition, degradation and dissolution. Thus, the study of archaeological site formation includes aspects of depositional, taphonomic and diagenetic processes that result in buildup of complex stratigraphic sequences. In this sense, studying archaeological site formation is not different from the scientific field of sedimentary geology, and thus the general scope of our research group is 'Sedimentary Archaeology'.

Previous work of this research group focused on terrestrial archaeological sites, unravelling mechanisms of material culture accumulation, degradation and diagenesis (see list of publications). Formation processes related to coastal and submerged archaeological sites are much less known or understood. One of the goals of the research group is developing new understandings about formation of such marine and lacustrine sites, while continuing research in terrestrial environments. The group's research is not limited to time periods or geographical location.

  1. The Intermediate Bronze Age in the Negev Highlands, Israel: a multidisciplinary study of chronology and subsistence economy (Project funded by the Germany-Israel Foundation, 2015-2017; with co-PI Markus Fuchs and CI Israel Finkelstein)

    Carried out by PhD student Zach Dunseth (co-supervised with Israel Finkelstein, TAU).

  2. The destruction of Stratum VIII at Lachish

    Carried out by PhD student Igor Kreimerman (co-supervised with Yosef Garfinkel, HUJI).

  3. Study of bones and formation processes in the Mousterian site of Ein Qashish

    Carried out by MA student Nadav Nir (co-supervised with Erella Hovers; HUJI).

  4. The destruction of Stratum VIA at Tel Megiddo

    Looking for MA or PhD student to carry out spatial analysis in this research.

  5. Excavation in the northwestern lower town of Tiryns: life world and cultural practice in a newly founded living quarter of the Mycenaean post-palatial period (Project funded by a German Research Foundation grant to Joseph Maran)

    Carried out by BA student Raphael Kahlenberg (co-supervised with Joseph Maran; University of Heidelberg)

  6. DryIR - Bloom the Dry. The Creation of Traditional Mediterranean Irrigated Fields (Project funded by the European Union Marie Curie fellowship program)

    Carried out by Post-doctoral fellow Dr. Arnald Puy.

  7. Recovering micro-archaeological evidence for ancient hunter-gatherer fishing industries (Project funded by the International Azrieli Fellowship Program)

    Carried out by Post-doctoral fellow Dr. Don Butler.

  8. Chemical and mineralogical changes in ceramics found underwater: Case study of Roman/Byzantine remains from Dor’s North Bay

    Carried out by MA student Isaac Ogloblin (co-supervised with Assaf Yasur-Landau; UH).

  9. A Study on the Provenience of Ballast and Building Stones in Dor’s North Bay

    Carried out by MA student Amanda Holdeman (co-supervised with Assaf Yasur-Landau; UH)

  10. Understanding Collapse: The Destruction of the Tel Kabri Palace (Project funded by the Israel Science Foundation together with Assaf Yasur-Landau)

    Looking for a PhD student to carry out site formation aspects of this research.

To study site formation processes requires understanding of both cultural and natural processes. In terrestrial and coastal sites this is achieved by utilizing the following research methods:

  1. EthnoarchaeologyEthnoarchaeology is a research method in which the archaeologist studies materials and processes in a socio-cultural setting. This method enables to make analogies from modern (mostly traditional) human settlements and activities to past ones. Ethnoarchaeological studies of this research group started in 1999 when R. Shahack-Gross conducted research among the Maasai in southern Kenya. Since then members of the group studied materials and processes in the following ethnoarchaeological settings: Semi-nomadic Bedouins (Negev Highlands, Israel; by Shahack-Gross), settled Bedouins (Besor area, Israel; by Dr. David Friesem), Farmers (Kranionas, Greece; by Dr. David Friesem), Farmers (Djam, Uzbekistan; by Dr. Shira Gur-Arieh). Future ethnoarchaeological studies in coastal sites are anticipated.

    Shahack-Gross in Kenya
    Photograph showing R. Shahack-Gross during ethnoarchaeological fieldwork, Kajiado District, Kenya (1999).

  2. Experimental archaeology: Experimental archaeology means conducting experiments that tend to replicate archaeological activities and processes. Almost every member of the group uses this approach during their research. The most recent set of experiments targeted the thermal behavior of chaff-tempered mud-bricks, within the framework of understanding processes of destruction by fire in ancient Near Eastern cities (tells).

    Experimental pebble hearths during temperature measurement        

    Photograph showing unheated mud brick within furnace oven, with 6 thermocouples inserted from its edge to core which enabled recording of the rate of heat penetration. For more details see Forget et al. 2015

  3. Archaeological excavationAll group members participate in archaeological excavations. Working at archaeological science means constant reciprocity between the field and the laboratory. Sampling of materials for analysis is conducted in the field, preferentially during active excavation, with much care regarding stratigraphy and context. Samples are then examined using various analytical methods either in a field laboratory or in the permanent laboratory.

    Excavation sites
    Photographs showing group members during excavation at Gvulot mud house (April 2011)

  4. Underwater survey and sampling: Initial steps are being taken in this direction to enable the study of submerged materials such as pottery and ballast stone. Future research aims to target more materials such as fish and mollusk shell diagenesis underwater, as well as diagenesis of terrestrial materials such as phytoliths and wood ash in submerged Neolithic sites.

  5. Sediment sampling: Two main methods of sampling at terrestrial and coastal sites are used:

    (a) Bulk samples for bulk analyses such as determination of mineralogical composition, determination of micro-remain concentrations, and more.

    Photograph showing bulk sampling along a sedimentary profile in the coastal city of Tel Dor, Israel

    (b) Block samples for micromorphological analysis, i.e., sediments sampled as intact blocks retaining their original structure and relationships between the various materials they are composed of. This method allows study of microstratigraphic sequences, contextual material identification and assessment of post-depositional processes.

    Photograph showing block samples in the coastal site of Tel Dor, Israel, each composed of several sedimentary units. The boundaries between the units are studied to understand modes of formation.

    Methods for underwater sampling will be developed.

  6. Analytical methods available in the laboratory for sedimentary archaeology:

    • Infrared spectroscopy: This technique enables to identify organic and inorganic materials and to study their states of preservation. It also allows determining whether or not certain materials have been exposed to high temperatures. It is also useful for understanding microstratigraphy and site structure.
    • Phytolith analysis: Phytoliths are microscopic silica bodies formed in living plants. Our laboratory studies the absolute concentrations of phytoliths, their state of preservation and their anatomical origin. These data allow addressing questions about the origin of plant material in archaeological sites, the site’s past economy and the inhabitants’ use of space.
    • Wood ash analysis: Wood ash is composed of microscopic calcite crystals. Its quantitative analysis allows determining the presence/absence of fire on site, use of space, and types of fuel used by past inhabitants and thus human-environment relationships.
    • Dung spherulite analysis: Dung spherulites are microscopic carbonaceous bodies that are formed in the intestines of herbivores, mostly ruminants, and are excreted with their dung. Presence of dung spherulites is useful for determining corralling of animals and thus subsistence economy (pastoralism) and site structure. Quantification of dung spherulites together with quantification of wood ash crystals and plant phytoliths allows accurate reconstruction of ancient fuel types (see Gur-Arieh et al. 2013).
    • Micromorphology: Like histology, where intact biological tissues are studied in thin section, micromorphology is the study of intact soils and sediments in thin section. This technique enables direct observation and identification of materials that comprise archaeological sediments, the spatial relationships between different sediment layers, and the post-depositional changes to the sediments under study.

      Most students in the group use more than one technique, as the techniques mentioned above are complimentary and allow better interpretation via several lines of investigation.


Paula Waiman-Barak (Lab. Manager)

Dr. Arnald Puy (Post-doc; 2015-  )

Dr. Don Butler (Post-doc; 2015-  )

Zachary Dunseth (MA, PhD; 2012-  )

Igor Kreimerman (PhD; 2014-  )

Nadav Nir (MA; 2013-  )

Amanda Holdeman (MA; 2014-  )

Isaac Ogloblin (MA; 2014-  )

Andrew Baronet (MA; 2014-  )



Mor Gafri (MA; 2006-2008)

Sivan Einhorn (MA; 2009-2011)

Dr. Dan Cabanes (Post-doc; 2009-2011)

Dr. Lior Regev (Post-doc; 2011-2012)

David Friesem (MA and PhD; 2008-2014)

Shira Gur-Arieh (PhD; 2008-2015)

Dr. Mathilde Forget (Post-doc; 2013-2015)


  • Regev, L., Cabanes, D., Homsher, R., Kleiman, A., Weiner, S., Finkelstein, I. and Shahack-Gross, R. (Accepted). Geoarchaeological investigation in a domestic Iron Age quarter, Tel Megiddo, Israel. Bulletin of the American Schools for Oriental Research (BASOR).
  • Shahack-Gross, R. (Accepted). Archaeological micromorphology self-evaluation exercise. Geoarchaeology.
  • Shahack-Gross, R. (Accepted). Animal gathering enclosures. In: Nicosia C. and Stoops G. (eds.), "Archaeological Soil and Sediment Micromorphology". An Encyclopedia, scheduled for publication in 2015 by Wiley-Blackwell.





  • Gur-Arieh S, Shahack-Gross R, Maeir AM, Lehmann G, Hitchcock LA, Boaretto E,. 2014 The Taphonomy and Preservation of Wood and Dung Ashes Found in Archaeological Cooking Installations: Case Studies From Iron Age Israel. Journal of Archaeological Science , 46: 50-67
  • Shahack-Gross R, Boaretto E, Cabanes D, Katz O, Finkelstein I,. 2014 Subsistence Economy in the Negev Highlands: the Iron Age and the Byzantine/Early Islamic Period. Levant, 46: 98-117
  • Shahack-Gross R, Berna F, Karkanas P, Lemorini C, Gopher A, Barkai R,. 2014 Evidence For the Repeated Use of a Central Hearth at Middle Pleistocene (300 ky Ago) Qesem Cave, Israel. Journal of Archaeological Science , 44: 12-21
  • Friesem DE, Zaidner Y, Shahack-Gross R,. 2014 Formation Processes and Combustion Features at the Lower Layers of the Middle Palaeolithic Open-Air Site of Nesher Ramla, Israel. Quaternary International, 331: 128-138
  • Friesem DE, Karkanas P, Tsartsidou G, Shahack-Gross R,. 2014 Sedimentary Processes Involved in Mud Brick Degradation in Temperate Environments: a Micromorphological Approach in an Ethnoarchaeological Context in Northern Greece. Journal of Archaeological Science , 41: 556-567
  • Friesem DE, Tsartsidou G, Karkanas P, Shahack-Gross R,. 2014 Where Are the Roofs? a Geo-Ethnoarchaeological Study of Mud Brick Structures and Their Collapse Processes, Focusing on the Identification of Roofs. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences , 6: 73-92



  • Cabanes D, Gadot Y, Cabanes M, Finkelstein I, Weiner S, Shahack-Gross R. 2012 Human Impact Around Settlement Sites: a Phytolith and Mineralogical Study For Assessing Site Boundaries, Phytolith Preservation, and Implications For Spatial Reconstructions Using Plant Remains. Journal of Archaeological Science , 39: 2697-2705
  • Gur-Arieh S, Boaretto E, Maeir A, Shahack-Gross R,. 2012 Formation Processes in Philistine Hearths From Tell es-Safi/Gath (Israel): an Experimental Approach. Journal of Field Archaeology , 37: 121-131



  • Gopher A, Ayalon A, Bar-Matthews M, Barkai R, Frumkin A, Karkanas P, Shahack-Gross R,. 2010 The Chronology of the Late Lower Paleolithic in the Levant Based on u-th Ages of Speleothems From Qesem Cave, Israel. Quaternary Geochronology, 5: 644-656
  • Boaretto E, Finkelstein I, Shahack-Gross R,. 2010 Radiocarbon Results From the Iron Iia Site of Atar Haroa in the Negev Highlands and Their Archaeological and Historical Implications. Radiocarbon, 52: 1-12
  • Katz O, Cabanes D, Weiner S, Maeir AM, Boaretto E, Shahack-Gross R,. 2010 Rapid Phytolith Extraction For Analysis of Phytolith Concentrations and Assemblages During an Excavation: an Application at Tell es-Safi/Gath, Israel. Journal of Archaeological Science , 37: 1557-1563


  • Frumkin A, Karkanas P, Bar-Matthews M, Barkai R, Gopher A, Shahack-Gross R, Vaks A,. 2009 Gravitational Deformations and Fillings of Aging Caves: the Example of Qesem Karst System, Israel. Geomorphology, 106: 154-164


  • Shahack-Gross R, Simons A, Ambrose SH,. 2008 Identification of Pastoral Sites Using Stable Nitrogen and Carbon. Isotopes From Bulk Sediment Samples: a Case Study in Modern and Archaeological Pastoral Settlements in Kenya. Journal of Archaeological Science , 35: 983-990
  • Shahack-Gross R,. 2008 Sediment Analysis and the Identification of Phytolith Layers. Near Eastern Archaeology, 71: 150-152
  • Shahack-Gross R, Ayalon A, Goldberg P, Goren Y, Ofek B, Rabinovich R, Hovers E. 2008 Formation Processes of Cemented Features in Karstic Cave Sites Revealed Using Stable Oxygen and Carbon Isotopic Analyses: a Case Study at Middle Paleolithic Amud Cave, Israel. Geoarchaeology-an International Journal, 23: 43-62
  • Albert RM, Shahack-Gross R, Cabanes D, Gilboa A, Lev-Yadun S, Portillo M, Sharon I, Boaretto E, Weiner S,. 2008 Phytolith-Rich Layers From the Late Bronze and Iron Ages at Tel Dor (Israel): Mode of Formation and Archaeological Significance. Journal of Archaeological Science , 35: 57-75
  • Shahack-Gross R, Finkelstein I,. 2008 Subsistence Practices in an Arid Environment: a Geoarchaeological Investigation in an Iron Age Site, the Negev Highlands, Israel. Journal of Archaeological Science , 35: 965-982


  • Karkanas P, Shahack-Gross R, Ayalon A, Bar-Matthews M, Barkai R, Frumkin A, Gopher A, Stiner MC,. 2007 Evidence For Habitual Use of Fire at the End of the Lower Paleolithic: Site-Formation Processes at Qesem Cave, Israel. Journal of Human Evolution, 53: 197-212
  • Berna F, Behar A, Shahack-Gross R, Berg J, Boaretto E, Gilboa A, Sharon I, Shalev S, Shilstein S, Yahalom-Mack N, Zorn JR, Weiner S,. 2007 Sediments Exposed to High Temperatures: Reconstructing Pyrotechnological Processes in Late Bronze and Iron Age Strata at Tel Dor (Israel). Journal of Archaeological Science , 34: 358-373


  • Shahack-Gross R, Albert RM, Gilboa A, Nagar-Hilman O, Sharon I, Weiner S. 2005 Geoarchaeology in an Urban Context: the Uses of Space in a Phoenician Monumental Building at Tel Dor (Israel). Journal of Archaeological Science, 32: 1417-1431
  • Shahack-Gross R, Albert RM, Gilboa A, Nagar-Hilman O, Sharon I, Weiner S. 2005 Geoarchaeology in an Urban Context: the Uses of Space in a Phoenician Monumental Building at Tel Dor (Israel). Journal of Archaeological Science , 32: 1417-1431




  • Shahack-Gross R, Tchernov E, Luz B, . 1999 Oxygen Isotopic Composition of Mammalian Skeletal Phosphate From the Natufian Period, Hayonim Cave, Israel: Diagenesis and Paleoclimate. Geoarchaeology , 14: 1-13